Gut Health Update + My Favorite Products for Gastrointestinal Flareups!

Disclaimer: This post is my personal experience and is NOT intended as medical advice in any way. I am not a doctor, so please consult with a medical professional if you have any concerns about your overall health and take what I say with a grain of salt!

When I started this blog, this was not the kind of post I imagined writing at all. Because I wanted it to be a professional blog, I did not have a mind to share anything personal about my health journey, beyond what I’ve experienced as a mental health and eating disorder patient.

But that all changed when, as I like to joke with my friends and David, my colon started trying to kill me. As with most things in life, I couldn’t predict that this was going to happen to me. I never thought I would feel so sick on such a regular basis, or that I would ever identify with the chronic illness and #spoonielife crowd.

Yet, here we are….and this post is all about how I got there. In a matter of several short months, I’ve gone from being a typical twenty-something who loves sipping rose and binge-watching Game of Thrones to an occasional invalid with the joint pain of a 70-year-old woman. (Yikes.)

So, how did this happen? Let’s start from the beginning. Oh, and warning: if you’re squeamish, skip the poop talk and scroll right to the bottom, where I list my favorite products for promoting gut health and soothing chronic pain!

Before College….

I have always known my gut was more, er, temperamental than most other kids’ my age. The first time I had to take laxatives, I was twelve or thirteen. I had to miss school because I felt so shitty (literally and figuratively, LOL). I remember this vividly – because the next day, I pulled myself together to go to a model U.N. conference at Bentley University.

Another time, I came down with terrible diarrhea that eventually turned into a black, tarry stool. In retrospect, that would have been grounds enough for concern….but being young, I waited for it to sort itself out, and eventually, it did.

The next time I felt like, well, shit, I was in high school and came down with the worst diarrhea I’d ever had in my life. Eventually, there was nothing left to pass but a thin, grayish-white mucus and bits of undigested food. It went away in a couple of days, so I stayed home to rest and chalked it up to food poisoning.

Early College….

After that, my digestive system seemed to miraculously heal until I was a freshman in college. I was eighteen when I saw blood in my stool for the first time. Immediately, I called my parents, who picked me up from college and drove me home to see my primary care doctor. (It might be a good time to mention that my parents only live 45 minutes away from my university.)

In an awkward experience I’ll never forget, the doctor inserted a gloved finger up my butt and told me I had an anal fissure. I asked what I should do and she replied bluntly, “Keep your stool soft.” So, I asked her what I should do if it happened again. She merely repeated, “Keep your stool soft.” I could tell I wasn’t welcome to ask any further questions, so I went home with a sigh of relief and vowed to start drinking more water. If only that had solved all my problems….

And Now….

I’ve experienced gut health problems left and right throughout the past three years of college, but over the past few months, my problems really started to rear their ugly head. For many people with chronic illnesses, our DNA predisposes us to the illness, but environmental stress activates the gene – so given the traumatic experience of cutting contact with my dad this summer and living through the Kavanaugh hearings as a sexual assault survivor in the fall, it’s no surprise that this year has been my worst one yet.

About two or three months ago, I saw my doctor for abdominal pain and chronic constipation, alternated with bouts of diarrhea. Since I noticed my symptoms were linked to gluten and lactose intolerance, my doctor tested my IgA and IgG antibodies to determine if I had celiac disease. As it turns out, I didn’t – so I was given a rough diagnosis of IBS instead, and told to modify my diet and come back if I still experienced symptoms.

Shortly after, I began working with a nutritionist named Liz at the Boston University Sargent Nutrition Center. All BU students get one free appointment, and if you have a GI condition or food allergy you can get up to five free sessions; insurance is needed for any sessions thereafter. If you go to BU, I highly recommend taking advantage of this service! My nutritionist has helped me overcome problematic attitudes and identify trigger foods as I started the low FODMAP diet.

However, despite my AMAZING experience with the Sargent Nutrition Center, not even the low FODMAP diet could stop my symptoms from worsening. Eventually, my stomach cramps got so bad that I was missing classes to stay in bed all day at least once a week. My appetite decreased, I was chronically constipated, eating too much food or overly-sweet foods made me nauseous and I even debated going to the ER at one point because the pain was so bad.

All these symptoms, combined with the presence of blood and mucus in my stool – an alarm symptom that isn’t typically seen with IBS, though it’s not impossible if you have an anal fissure or hemorrhoids – led me to schedule an appointment with a GI doctor in Boston. Since Crohn’s disease runs in my family (my mom’s uncle has it), I was concerned my severe symptoms might mean more than mere IBS.

In the meantime, I visited my student health center, where they ran more tests that, according to my doctor, came back normal (though this hasn’t necessarily matched up with the research I’ve done independently); however, I am still waiting for them to run a fecal occult blood test since I haven’t returned my sample yet. (Below, I’ll go into more detail about all the medical tests I’ve had thus far, for anyone who is curious or suspects they may have a GI condition and wants to follow my journey.)

Despite this, I continue to feel “ill” even though my sickness isn’t showing up on tests. I’m fatigued no matter how much sleep I get, my joints hurt, I can only eat small portions of food at a time and I still suffer abdominal pain and altered bowel habits, sometimes with blood or mucus in my stool.

Emotionally, this has been the hardest part: I can feel that something is wrong, and I just want someone to see me for the way I feel instead of downplaying my symptoms. Right now, I’m just impatient to see the specialist, but since they can’t get me in until February, that seems to be a long-time coming. If my symptoms get worse in the meantime, where I have severe pain or lose lots of blood, I have been instructed to visit the ER – but hopefully, it won’t come to that!

Medical Testing So Far

As I mentioned before, I suspect I may have some form of IBD, such as Crohn’s disease, which runs in my family. Unfortunately, these illnesses – like many “invisible” chronic illnesses – are difficult to diagnose and identify. Additionally, depending on the source, different numbers are considered “normal” in some tests.

So, in case you are on a similar journey as me or are simply curious about the path toward diagnosis, I’m chronicling my health history as well as any tests I’ve had. So far, I’ve had the following tests:

  • IgA and IgG antibodies: tests for celiac disease.
  • Complete blood count (CBC): gives an overview of red and white blood cells.
  • Metabolic panel: reports electrolytes to give a picture of kidney and liver function.
  • ESR/SED rate: measures how long it takes red blood cells to settle at the bottom of a test tube, to detect inflammation.

None of these tests revealed any abnormalities; however, my doctor says this does not mean I do not have IBD. In many cases, imaging is the most reliable way to determine if you have it.

Last But Not Least….My Favorite Products!

Now that I’ve given you a long – but informative, I hope! – health update, I promised I’d share with you some of the products that have helped me deal with this difficult time in my life. I’ll also share links so you can purchase these products for yourself if you are struggling and interested!

  • Abercrombie & Fitch jogger sweatpants. When you’re as bloated and crampy as I have been recently, the last thing you want to do is squeeze into your skinny jeans. These sweatpants are so soft and comfy – I swear, I’ve worn them every day for the past two weeks! (Don’t worry, I’ve washed them.)
  • Hooty & Friends microwavable heating pad. I purchased this owl-shaped heating pad at a TJ Maxx in my hometown back in high school, and it’s been a staple in dealing with pain ever since. I like using this on my stomach to help with stomach cramps and painful bloating, but it’s also useful for joint pain.
  • BKR water bottle. When dealing with constipation, staying hydrated is key. My BKR bottle is the cutest way to stay hydrated on the go – plus, the kit I purchased comes with a handy brush and replacement bottles for easy cleaning.
  • Cara app. Not technically a product since it’s free to use, but the Cara app has been my go-to for tracking every symptom. The app is specifically designed for people with IBS or IBD to track symptoms, stress and food. It even correlates things like the number of steps you take, how stressed you are and what you ate to your symptoms, so you can easily uncover ways to improve them.
  • Up4 Probiotic. I’ve tried a lot of probiotics over the years, but I bought Up4 probiotics after taking the SmartGut test (more on that next!) of my microbiome. I noticed I was low on bifidobacterium, so I looked for a probiotic that contains bifidobacterium and lactobacillus, which are two strains important for your gut health. I like this probiotic more than any other I’ve tried precisely because it is a no-bullshit product that only contains simple ingredients: two strains of bacteria and vegetable cellulose capsules.
  • SmartGut by Ubiome. If you have IBS, IBD or various gut health symptoms, you might be eligible for the SmartGut test by Ubiome. This company makes simple at-home tests of your microbiome and can detect both pathogens associated with infectious diarrhea and strains connected to food intolerances, IBS, IBD and other medical conditions. As a result, I’ve found out that I’m intolerant to lactose and gluten and that I am extremely low in the strain bifidobacterium, which confers many positive health benefits. The best part? My insurance completely covers it through Ubiome’s patient assistance program, designed for people with low-incomes. They send me a test every two weeks, entirely for free, that allows me to monitor my microbiome and how it changes over time. This is truly the medicine of the future, people!